Homelessness and Me

I have never been close to being homeless.  I’ve worked in homeless shelters for over 30 years, though, first at Hesed House in Aurora, and now for over 15 ears coordinating my church’s homeless program at the Daybreak Shelter in Joliet, Illinois.  Why?

Daybreak Homeless Shelter in Joliet, IllinoisThere are easy answers to this question, and harder ones.  On the easy side, it’s one of the ways I’ve found to carry out Jesus’ command to serve, especially the poor, and I’ve made many friends—some of them my closest—with those who have served at Daybreak with me.  Some have served there longer than I have.  I’ve made friends with the Daybreak staff, too, and also with some of the guests, though that’s always an ironic thing. You make friends with some you see over and over, yet the fact that you see them over and over often means they’re chronically homeless.  You wish they could move on.

In his seminal pamphlet The Servant as Leader—the essay that started the whole field of Servant Leadership studies—Robert Greenleaf remarks that those who undertake social change do so to heal themselves.  I’ve written about this before in “Grief and Social Change,” an article that includes a Video about one of my graduate students, who did her project in my Leadership for Social Change class motivated by her daughter’s tragic death.  When Rick and Desiree Guzman founded Emmanuel House, our family undertook its own journey to heal itself from the loss of its youngest member, Bryan Emmanuel Guzman.  Prompted by Greenleaf and many life experiences, I think about this connection between social change, social service, and grief and pain a lot.

Greenleaf-ServantLeadBookIn his book Change the World, one of the best extensions of Greenleaf’s work, Robert Quinn asks us to consider what inner pain drives us towards or keeps us away from effective leadership and social change.  Strangely—because I’ve taught social change for 20 years—it’s been only three or four months since I realized what pain has driven me to homeless shelters for so long.  It’s been this life long pain of hardly ever feeling at home, anywhere.  It’s manifested itself in many ways, one of which has to do with my being Filipino, and I don’t mean being a minority in American culture, though that’s part of it.  I mean not feeling truly at home among my Filipino friends.  Though they respect me and welcome me, I’m in a profession very different from them, and—most of all—I no longer speak my own dialect, Ilocano, and never did speak Tagalog, what most of them speak. For many reasons, this has been a deep, isolating pain for me, a pain doubled by not feeling at all attached to my homeland.  Though I was born in the Philippines, I left when I was 11 months old and have never returned.  From the time we could understand anything, my parents always told us the Philippines was never a place you wanted to be.  When my Father’s mother died—I have no conscious memory of her, my grandmother—my Mother and Father fought over whether he would go back for his own mother’s funeral.  My Mother won. My Father didn’t go.

That’s just one aspect of my hardly ever feeling at home, and I suppose it’s prompted at this moment because I’ve just moved into a new house where I’m not feeling at home yet.  I miss the old one, and the old neighborhood, so much I feel like I’ll never feel at home here.

I’m acutely aware, however, that I’m in a home, not at all homeless, so I don’t mean to suggest that the inner pain of hardly ever feeling at home is the same thing as actually being homeless.  I just know now that I’ve always felt very deeply a small part of what the homeless must feel.  I have felt “at home” with them, have felt a kind of healing that has kept me coming to shelters over and over to make whatever difference I can.

  The distinguished homeless advocate Diane Nilan started Daybreak Shelter.  Follow the link to see the considerable amount of material on her on this site.

 This article is part of a series on Greenleaf’s The Servant as Leader.  Go to the series’ Lead Post.

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Climbing Up That Mountain

Below, a simple Video rendering of my song “Climbing Up That Mountain.”  In church they’d call it a “choral anthem.”

RedeemedI worked on my doctorate at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville from 1973 to 1977, attending the adjacent University Baptist Church while I did.  There I was fortunate to come into a wonderful music program directed by Carl Beard, a program that grew even more in prominence when, in conjunction with the university, he started a student choral group, naming it Jubilate, for decades now one of the finest choirs on the East Coast.

In April 2018 Jubilate celebrates its 40th anniversary, and I’ve been told “Climbing Up That Mountain” will be on the program.  How fortunate I was to have an instrument like Jubilate—and indeed the church’s own Chancel Choir—to write for.  They were so good I could write practically anything I wanted, though that probably resulted in music a bit too “fancy.”  ”Think of a normal church choir doing these,” advised Harold Best, then chair of music at Wheaton College when we discussed revising some of my pieces.  ”They’re so good, but you could think more in terms of a choir that’s lucky if they can scrape together two tenors.”  Gary Walton, a Jubilate member and also studying English at UVa said,  ”Lucky your music’s so good…because it’s hard.”  Revisions coming soon, I’ve told others and myself for a few years now!  A recent email from Gary reads:

“What a treat it was that Robby Gough has kept up with you all these years and knew your web address.  So for the last hour I have been touring the site and learning a bit of your life since you left C-ville in the 70’s.  My father’s favorite choral anthem of all time was “Love of thy Children” [live link coming soon]. My sister had four of us—Tom and Diane Mundell, my wife Sally and I— sing “Emmaus” at her wedding. Sally transcribed the first version of “Psalm 103” while she was still in high school in C-ville and taking voice lessons with Carl.  So I have been singing along with the music on the web site tonight.”

Gary Walton is now Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities and Professor of English at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.   In the song/video below, Jubilate, directed by Carl Beard (with Gary Walton probably in it), features soloist Evan Young.  Robby Gough, whose dedication to Jubilate has been of inestimable value from the very beginning, served as recording engineer.

 Go to GuzMusic on this site for music, mainly by Dan Guzman—and others, like me.

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Mike Royko: Controversy…and the Cubs

When Mike Royko died in 1997, Chicago mourned.  Granted, a few of the many people he confronted in his no-nonsense manner may have secretly celebrated, but his death was seen by many as the end of an era, when newspaper columnists spoke their minds and weren’t afraid to offend the sensibilities of their readers.  As we bemoan our current era of fake news and incredible reporting biases, right and left, as we plead for fact-based journalism and a return to some greater measure of civility and sanity, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean there’s no place in journalism for strong opinion—often fiercely strong opinion.  ”He wrote with a piercing wit and rugged honesty that reflected Chicago in all its two-fisted charm,” wrote Rick Kogan in “20 Years without the legendary Mike Royko.”  I know Royko would have come at this era of fake news with both fists swinging.  ”His daily column,” writes Kogan, “was a fixture in the city’s storied journalistic history, and his blunt observations about crooked politicians, mobsters, exasperating bureaucracy and the odd twists of contemporary life reverberated across the nation.”


Kogan’s recent tribute starts by recalling the short, staccato conversations he had with another storied columnist, New York’s Jimmy Breslin, whom we lost on March 19th this year.  When Royko lay dying from a brain aneurism, Breslin would call Kogan every day for an update. On April 29th, 1997, when Kogan told Breslin that Royko had died at 3:30 p.m., Breslin said, “Goddam it.  Well, Goddam it,” and hung up.

It would be impossible to write about Royko without mentioning controversies and his detractors, like in 1996 when a thousand protesters “gathered outside Tribune Tower demanding that Royko be fired for what they felt were insulting portrayals of Mexicans in his column,” or when the famed Chicago priest and writer Andrew Greely characterized Royko’s writing as “crudity mixed with resentment.”

Nearly all of Royko’s books were collections of his newspaper columns, yet his 1971 Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, which won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, shows that Royko’s sometimes careless prose could truly shine when he was freed from the constraints of his daily assignments.  Writing in the New Republic, Roy Fisher wrote that in Boss, “Daley emerges as a complex mixture of integrity and debasement, of wisdom and stupidity, of vision and blindness, of compassion and brutality.”  Daley’s wife, Eleanor “Sis” Daley, thought the book was “trash and hogwash,” and, Rick Kogan writes, “When asked about his wife’s review…Richard J. replied with that characteristic grin, ‘She’s entitled to her opinion.’”  David Starkey and I included an excerpt from Boss in our book Smokestacks and Skyscrapers: An Anthology of Chicago Writing.

Royko2dRoyko, the son of saloon keepers, was born in a Polish neighborhood on the Northwest Side of Chicago in 1932.  He grew up among drinkers and fighters and, not surprisingly, some of his best writing is set in the city’s bars.  After a stint in the Air Force, Royko became columnist for the Chicago Daily News from 1959 until the paper closed in 1978.  He wrote for the Sun Times from 1978 to 1984, and finally, in a move that coincided with national syndication, for the Tribune from 1984 to his death.  Royko, whose higher education consisted of two years at Wright Community College, was always skeptical of intellectuals, seeing himself as a champion of the common man and a debunker of frauds.  His most famous alter ego was the tough-talking, cynical Slats Grobnik.

Still, he was a life-long Cubs fan.  He often ridiculed the “curse of the Billy Goat” excuse for the team’s failures and blamed owner P.K. Wrigley himself.  In fact, the Cubs were the subject of his very last column (read it Here), March 21, 1997, where he writes of Wrigley running, “…the worst franchise in baseball. And a big part of that can be blamed on racism.  If not Wrigley’s, then that of the stiffs he himself hired to run his baseball operations.”

Rick Kogan ends his tribute to Royko recalling his wife Judy’s reflections on Royko and the Cubs.

“‘The Cubs winning the World Series? There really are no words to describe what Mike would have thought, would have felt,’ says Judy. ‘He would have … I don’t have the words.’

“She can remember vividly the night when the Cubs clinched the 1984 division title. She and Mike watched the game at the Billy Goat Tavern. It was jammed, and after the victory, people, strangers mostly, approached Mike to exchange high-fives. Quietly, gently, he grabbed Judy by the hand and led her from the bar, up the stairs and out onto Hubbard Street. She thought they were headed home. Instead he took her in his arms and they started to dance.

“‘We were there, alone in the middle of the street, just twirling in that strange, otherworldly light,’ she says. ‘We were so happy.’”

“The following morning,” Kogan concludes, “he was back at the paper writing his column because that’s what he did.”

 Go to a list of Chicago Writers, and to the Smokestacks and Skyscrapers page, where you can also BUY the book.

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